Cheat Meals: Do they work?

Posted on Posted in Nutrition

If you’ve ever been on any type of diet, it is likely that you’ve had (and looked forward to) the coveted CHEAT MEAL. If you’re not familiar, a cheat meal (at least the intended purpose) is something that you use to take a “break” from the diet you’re on. Since most fad diets are pretty restrictive, a cheat meal is your chance to satisfy any cravings you’ve had throughout the week. (Please also note that a cheat meal is not the same as a refeed meal, which we’ll discuss in another blog post).

Now that we’ve identified the intended use of a cheat meal, let’s get real. For a very small group of people, they stick to their diet, have their small and controlled cheat meal once per week, and move on to the next week. For MOST people? It looks a little bit more like this:

Diet all week > have a cheat meal > cheat meal turns into a cheat day OR stays at one meal but becomes an extravagant binge-fest > cheat day leads to water weight and bloating > this causes guilt and shame > you find that you’ve achieved no weight loss and maybe even weight gain.

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All of that work and nothing to show for it. It can become a frustrating and defeating cycle. So what gives?

Here are the straight facts:

In order to lose weight, a caloric deficit must be created. This can be done through the reduction of daily calories consumed and/or an increase in activity. The amount of this varies from person to person, depending on how many calories they already burn on a daily basis and how fast or slow their metabolism functions.

Let’s use an example to illustrate how your cheat meal (or day) is causing you to halt or even reverse your progress.

Sally is a 140lb woman who maintains her current weight with 1800 calories per day. She’s decided she wants to lose weight, so through a combination of diet and exercise, she is going to cut 250 calories from her diet and increase her activity to burn an additional 250 calories per day. She’ll be eating 1550 calories per day which puts her at a caloric deficit of 500 calories per day (or 3500 calories per week). Since it takes a deficit of 3500 calories to lose a pound (and conversely an additional 3500 calories to gain a pound), she will lose approximately 1 pound per week on this deficit.

During the week, Sally is diligent about her food and absolutely nails her diet. She’s feeling accomplished and decides to go out for a cheat meal on Saturday for dinner. Throughout the day, she takes in about 1500 calories (breakfast, lunch, and a few snacks). She gets to her dinner and orders a burger and fries (1,000 calories) and a milkshake(1,500 calories). They also have a few drinks with dinner(500 calories). In total, Sally has taken in 4,500 calories on this Saturday. This brings her weekly caloric intake to 13,800, which is an average of 1971 calories per day. Since her maintenance caloric intake is only 1800, Sally will actually GAIN weight this week. Maybe not much, but you can see how over time, these numbers add up. What’s worse is that you’re dealing with food restriction, cravings, and self-restraint all for NO real results.

As you can see, even though Sally was putting in the work and being 100% compliant on her diet 6 days per week, her ONE CHEAT MEAL blew her entire week. So what is the solution?

This is where we go back to SUSTAINABILITY (you can read more about that in THIS blog post about why diets fail). If your diet doesn’t cause you to constantly crave your favorite foods, you’ll be much more compliant and won’t need a cheat meal. Now, this doesn’t mean that you’ll never go out for a big decadent meal, but it means that you won’t need it on a weekly basis. It will become something that is saved for special occasions, and not a weekly habit. (Again, when referring to cheat meals, we are not referring to refeed meals, which are a different animal and used for a different purpose). This is why we constantly talk about finding a diet that is sustainable. That will be different for different people. This chart we posted on our Instagram this weekend is a perfect example.

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All of these diets work on the SAME principle: caloric deficit. What will work for YOU is whatever is most sustainable for you based on tastes, preferences, lifestyle, etc. (Please also note that this list is used to make a point and only lists the most popular diets. There are PLENTY of other options and we do not necessarily approve or support the ones listed here.)

It sounds cliche,  but the truth holds: you can’t out train a bad diet. There is no way around it. On paper, weight loss is simple (caloric deficit), but obviously we are human beings with emotions, responsibilities, and a limited supply of will power. What we HAVE found though, is that with a sustainable plan and the right support, weight loss goals are not only achievable, but are somewhat enjoyable. Living on chicken and broccoli is no way to live (for most). We know that and it’s why we make sure that our clients are still able to enjoy their lives, enjoy FOOD, and reach their goals.

We’re always here, so please reach out if you need help getting started!

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